As time passes and people age, turnover is inevitable.
Just as the face of the Champaign County judiciary will be changing, so too is that of the Illinois Supreme Court.
The latest shoe to drop came Monday, when Justice Robert Thomas announced that he’s retiring on Feb. 29 after serving 20 years on the high court. A former placekicker with the Chicago Bears — he once kicked a last-second field goal to put them in the playoffs — Thomas has served a total of 32 years as a judge at the trial, appellate and Supreme Court levels.
Because of what surely was the intentional timing of Thomas’ announcement, there will not be an election to fill his spot until 2022. In the meantime, appellate Justice Michael Burke will fill Thomas’ seat.
Although Burke has not announced his intention to run for the post, it would be no great surprise if he did. Given the sharp interest among both Republican and Democratic lawyers in the post, Thomas’ announcement could set the stage for a judicial free-for-all to succeed him.
That’s what happened back in 1990 when Thomas won a three-way Republican primary to run for the court, defeating appointee and party leaders’ choice Louis Rathje.
Thomas is the third of the court’s seven justices to retire within a relatively short period of time.
Charles Freeman, one of three justices from District 1 in Cook County, is already gone, replaced by Justice P. Scott Neville Jr. Democrats will choose from among a large number of candidates in the March 17 primary whether Neville will be their nominee and run unopposed in the November general election.
Justice Lloyd Karmeier, who is from District 5 in downstate Illinois, announced a few months ago that he will leave after the November election. Two Republicans and one Democrat are seeking their party’s nominations, with the primary winners facing off in November.
Judicial elections like these do not come around very often. Supreme Court justices are elected for 10-year terms and run for retention, not re-election, for additional 10-year terms.
So this kind of turnover is significant personality-wise, although not quite so much from the standpoint of judicial philosophy. When one justice goes, he or she is generally replaced by a like-minded successor.
Thomas has served well on the court. His opinions are clearly written and well-argued. If his elected successor does as well, the people of Illinois will be well served.
That, however, will require voters to choose carefully when they go to the polls to elect justices to replace Freeman, Karmeier and Thomas.
Given the coming turnover, it’s worth wondering what the future holds for the other four justices — Rita Garman of Danville, Thomas Kilbride of Rock Island and Anne Burke and Mary Jane Theis of Chicago.
All are veteran justices. All have lengthy tenure on the high court. All have to be thinking when or if they’ll follow the leads of the departing justices.
There’s no rush, of course, for any of them. But more changes would appear to be in the court’s near future.